On a recent visit to Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC) in Porcupine, South Dakota, something extraordinary was evident. A spark had been ignited and a cultural movement of change was happening at Thunder Valley CDC, which has become a powerful catalyst of innovative change for the Oglala Lakota people of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and all across Indian Country.
As an enrolled member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation in Rosebud, South Dakota (neighbors to Pine Ridge), and being part Oglala Lakota myself with family still living in Pine Ridge, it struck me how Thunder Valley has been able to create considerable change in the area. What once used to be barren prairie land, a pathway out of poverty has been created with a master-planned community being built at the Thunder Valley Community Development center site.
First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) saw this cultural movement of change first-hand while attending a planning design meeting for phase II of the Thunder Valley community development project on February 8-9, 2016. Three members of First Nations’ staff – Senior Program Officer Catherine Bryan, Grants & Program Officer Kendall Tallmadge, and myself (Program Officer Tawny Wilson) – were able to attend this important meeting with Thunder Valley Executive Director Nick Tilsen, Deputy Director Sharice Davids, Director of Advancement Liz Welch, and Director of Design Kaziah Haviland. Other attendees included BNIM Project Manager Christina Hoxie, BNIM Associate Principals Vincent Gauthier, Laura Pastine and Adam Weichman, KLJ Engineering’s Dana Foreman, and Art Space’s Senior Vice President of Asset Management Greg Handber, as well as Allen Orechwa, Chief Financial Officer of Clearing House CDFI (community development financial institution). Rural & Native American Initiative Director Russell Kaney and National Renewable Energy Lab’s Engineer Chuck Kurnik were also an integral part of the phase II planning meeting.
The plan involves building a sustainable community powered by wind energy and solar panels with strategically designed dwellings aimed at reducing energy costs and improving efficiency. In phase one of the community development plan, a community center and single-family homes will be built at a cost of $9.5 million, and is projected to take three years for completion. Within 10 years, when phase II is fully completed, the community will house approximately 1,000 people. The community development efforts of the people at the meeting and their partners across the country have contributed to this innovative and unprecedented community development project’s growth on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The Thunder Valley CDC project is the development of a 34-acre planned community with single- and multi-family housing, emergency youth shelter, food-growing operations, grocery store, powwow grounds, youth recreational areas, community and educational facilities, as well as retail spaces for local businesses. As Thunder Valley notes: “It’s not just about building homes. It’s about building up a people and, in the process, creating a national model to alleviate poverty and build sustainable communities.”
Normally hope and inspiration are not easily found in one of the most economically challenged places in the country, but what is happening on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is not considered normal by most standards. Thunder Valley began as a movement and cultivation of being empowered spiritually and taking responsibility for the future by creating a movement to build a healthy and sustainable community. Instead of just talking about creating change, the team members at Thunder Valley have rolled up their sleeves and are making it happen by doing.
First Nations has been an ongoing supporter of Thunder Valley since 2005 and has awarded the organization with various grants and technical assistance through our Native Youth and Culture Fund, Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative, and Native Arts Capacity Building Initiative. In addition to providing funding, First Nations administers technical assistance to Thunder Valley CDC.
Thunder Valley has proven that a little bit of funding and a whole lot of hope, belief and sheer determination go a long way.
By Tawny Wilson, First Nations Program Officer